|Musharraf addresses the media at the Davos World Economic Forum in |
In a poignant moment captured by the media during his tour of European capitals last month, Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, pulled out a handkerchief, wiped his forehead and wondered aloud: "The temperature is rather warm … or is it just that I am talking."
The remark highlighted Musharraf's increasingly difficult task to project himself as the right man to lead Pakistan in the face of increasing acts of terrorism and political instability.
The European tour, which was publicised as a mission of "correcting Pakistan's image", was further set back when a Pakistani journalist in London asked the president about the recent escape of a high-profile terrorist from government custody.
The fracas which ensued between the president and the journalist seemed to indicate that Musharraf is losing not only his media savvy but more importantly the perception of indispensibility.
The president is also facing mounting public pressure at home from both civilian and military strata - even if it is mostly confined to retired former generals - to step down.
Politically, Musharraf is at a crossroads. His popularity has fallen to such an extent that if his allies and supporters in the Pakistan Muslim League, the last ruling party, win in the upcoming elections, he will be accused of rigging the vote.
But in the event of a fair and transparent poll, pundits believe the mainstream opposition comprising the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) will win by a landslide.
The PPP, once led by Benazir Bhutto, the slain former premier, and the PML-N, led by Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, could then possibly move to impeach Musharraf.
The uneasiness about his future was evident in an acknowledgement Musharraf made grudgingly, last month to Der Spiegel, a German news magazine.
"Believe me, on the day when I arrive at the conviction that the majority of the people don't want me any more, when I believe I can no longer make a contribution to my country, I will not hesitate a second. I will go."
When pressed on how he would know when the majority of Pakistanis no longer favour him, the president became evasive.
But popular discontent with Musharraf's presidency has been increasing for the past year.
In a December 2007 opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), a non-profit group based in Washington, 67 per cent of Pakistanis said they wanted Musharraf to resign immediately.
Seventy per cent said his government did not deserve re-election.
Musharraf's spin doctors, however, dismissed the findings as unfounded.
Last week, the authorities in Islamabad informed the two Americans responsible for the poll to leave the country within three weeks because their visas would not be renewed. The government had tried in January to have them thrown out but relented under diplomatic pressure.
The IRI has also been banned from providing exit poll data in the upcoming elections on the premise that "there is no mention of it in the constitution".
The institute has as a result reversed a decision to send election observers for the February 18 vote because of fears the volatile situation would prevent them from accurately gauging the elections.
It was the only American group planning to send observers.
"Like a bull"
The withdrawal of the IRI team drew a stern reaction from Pakistan's biggest rights watchdog.
Iqbal Haider, the secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said: "Without a shadow of a doubt, Musharraf is behaving, I keep saying, like a bull in a china shop."
The IRI exit was quickly followed by the expulsion of American journalist Nicholas Schmidle, who had moved to Pakistan on a research and writing fellowship in 2006.
Schmidle's crime appears to be an article he wrote which appeared in The New York Times Magazine outlining the rise of a new generation of Taliban on Pakistan's borderland.
Two days after publication, and well before his two-year course was to end, Islamabad asked him to leave.
His departure will likely rankle ordinary Pakistanis since he had written eloquently about the largely "misunderstood" country and "the most hospitable people in the world".
The growing frustration with Musharraf's rule may be evident to all but the president himself; he has dismissed all criticism as dissent unworthy of his attention.
But opposition to Musharraf's tenure appears to be gaining momentum.
In an unprecedented move, retired top generals, including army, air force and naval chiefs as well as Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chiefs, wrote a letter last month publicly calling for Musharraf to step down.
Musharraf dismissed this, too. In Europe, he told the Financial Times: "They are insignificant personalities … most of them are ones who served under me and I kicked them out. They are insignificant. I am not even bothered by them."
The former military and intelligence servicemen, enraged at Musharraf's apparent contempt, lashed back at Musharraf and announced plans to join the legal community, whose leaders and about five dozen independent judges of the superior courts are currently under detention or forced restraint for their opposition to the beleaguered leader.
Anjum Niaz, an eminent analyst of Pakistani and American politics, is surprised at the hubris. "One must watch one's language. Granted one may not agree with one's opponents but it does not give one the right to use words like 'kick'. It shows the pettiness of the mind."
As one senior US congressional official, who visited Pakistan recently, but did not want to be named, observed: "[Musharraf] is locked in his own bubble that l'etat, c'est moi — the state is me. He's not thinking clearly anymore."
"Liquidation of legacies"
Musharraf's popularity years ago rose on the back of an image cultivated with some craft and ingenuity by Mushahid Hussain, a media doyen-turned politician.
The principle of "Enlightened Moderation" (primed at extremists in the Muslim world) — the image that endeared Musharraf to the West for years — is actually the brainchild of the Georgetown University-educated Hussain.
But even he fell out with Musharraf over the latter's ambitious streak.
Recalling the general's decision to impose emergency lrule ast November despite his pleading, Hussain quickly distanced himself before adding somewhat piquantly: "By this action, the chief of army staff will end up presiding over the liquidation of his own legacy."
The writer is News Editor at Dawn News, an independent Pakistani television channel.